Not Quite Splitting the Difference on Jerusalem

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will give a speech this weekend accepting President Obama’s call for a sovereign Palestinian state.

Netanyahu will set some conditions for that acceptance, practical steps to safeguard Israeli security. Those conditions will get a sympathetic hearing from the Obama administration. But Netanyahu has already received his warning that he can expect very little sympathy on the most emotional issue in the dispute: the status of Jerusalem. In his Cairo speech, President Obama signalled his intent to press for some kind of international status for the ancient holy city.

What's that? You didn't hear Obama say that? Remember, this is Barack Obama talking. To understand his meaning, you must listen very, very carefully.

Obama will pressure Israel to surrender something it has--control over Jerusalem--in exchange for the Palestinians surrendering something they want.

At the end of the section on Arab-Israeli peacemaking, the President offered a striking image of brotherhood:

All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of the three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra--as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, peace be upon them, joined in prayer.

What has that to do with Jerusalem?

Isra is the title of a chapter of the Koran, the 17th. The chapter opens with the following verse:

Glory to Allah, Who did take His servant for a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the farthest Mosque, whose precincts We did bless, in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One Who heareth and seeth.

This verse is explained by Islamic tradition in the following way:

Shortly before Muhammad fled Mecca, the archangel Gabriel appeared to him with a magical horse. Muhammad mounted the horse and was carried to the "farthest mosque," where he led Jesus, Moses and other prophets in prayer.

Some Muslims interpret the "farthest mosque" as heaven itself--and the whole Isra story as a vision of Heaven.

But more politicized Muslims have insisted on a different interpretation. For them, the "farthest mosque" is a place on Earth: Jerusalem. For them, the story of Isra is the theological origin of the Islamic claim to the holy city of the Jews.

Past American presidents have addressed the Palestinian problem as a humanitarian issue. Obama in Cairo went much further--which is why his audience applauded so loud.

President Obama made no analogous allusion to the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. Quite the contrary. About Israel's origins, the President said: "The aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied"--that is, as he proceeded to explain, in the history of the Nazi Holocaust.

Jews could tell him that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland in Zion long antedates the horror of 1933-45. "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning," is a verse far less obscure than the story of Isra and at least a thousand years older. Worse, the President's mention of the Nazi Holocaust as justification for the Jewish state invites the unanswered question, "Why should Arabs and Muslims surrender land because of a German crime?"

President Obama did not go quite as far as his Cairo audience might have wished. He described Isra as a "story"--meaning something that might or might not be true. He did not explicitly mention Jerusalem--meaning that the grand union of religions invoked in the speech may well have to wait for heaven after all. Notice too the subtle editing so that Muhammad joins Jesus and Moses rather than leading them, as he does in the Islamic tradition.

Characteristically, Obama is trying to find an intermediate position between two opposing points. But also characteristically, this intermediate position is not exactly in the middle. Obama will pressure Israel to surrender something it has--control over Jerusalem--in exchange for the Palestinians surrendering something they want. Similarly, the outcome the President appears to seek--internationalization of the central city--will likely be less favourable to Israel, since international bodies can be expected to show much greater deference to the sensibilities of their many Arab and Muslim members than to their sole and single Jewish member.

The President's preference is not of course the last word. But it is a powerful word--and it presents Israel with another in the daunting series of challenges and dangers from this audacious President.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

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